Director of photography Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC, talks about his work on Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man”

par Darius Khondji

[ English ] [ français ]

Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC, is collaborating with Woody Allen for the fifth time on Irrational Man, an official Out of Competition selection at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. _ Having most recently worked on several period pictures—James Gray’s The Immigrant, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Magic in the Moonlight, and The Devil You Know, a pilot for a series directed by Gus Van Sant—Darius admits finding great pleasure in returning to a contemporary universe.

Irrational Man takes place in a university setting, and Joaquin Phoenix, directed by Woody Allen for the first time, plays the role of Abe, a philosophy professor. Emma Stone (who was also in Magic in the Moonlight) joins him in this existential comedy.

For this fifth collaboration with Woody Allen, did you bring anything new to his visual world ?

Darius Khondji : I think the only new thing is that the images in Irrational Man are the coldest Woody has used in one of his films in a long time ! We moved away from the warm, golden images he likes so much. On Magic in the Moonlight, we began working with an image that was less red, less golden and he ended up liking that.
Woody is fairly traditional in his way of filming. But he also likes to be pushed out of his comfort zone. The role of the camera with him is always pretty evident, it’s fairly simple. There isn’t a radical point of view like in Gus Van Sant’s films, who I just finished working with. Every now and then, it kind of reminded me of the sort of films he was making 30 years ago, except they weren’t shot in Scope, other than Manhattan.

So you shot this in anamorphic ?

DK : Yes, it corresponded to what Woody and I had wanted to bring as far as the image of the film, and he enjoyed the experience he had with Scope on his last film. I used a Panavision C Series, I thought that those optics could offer us a more contemporary image. They give an image resolution that is quite soft, one that I like a lot, with a depth in the flesh tones not unlike the old Cooke anamorphics, yet at the same time being a bit sharper and brighter.

And you shot on film, of course !

DK : Yes, but I’m told Woody Allen will shoot his next film in digital !1 _I love exposing the negatives, it’s more exciting for me. I experimented with digital for the first time on Amour, the Haneke film, and more recently with Gus Van Sant. I like shooting period pieces with film, but for that pilot, which took place in 1690, we shot in “open gate” digital and I really liked the results. Something to think about, for sure.
Part of me thinks that its more courageous to shoot with film, and that other than in certain particular situations, digital makes us lazy…Digital is too “safe” a place. Film is more inspiring, it has to be conquered.
But now, with these wonderful new cameras, digital is on its way to becoming unbelievable over the next few years. I made a film this winter with an Alexa 65, I think we were the first to use it. The sensor is so large that when you move into under-exposure, there is no pixelation. We calibrated some film by artist and filmmaker Philippe Parenno with Didier Lefouest in Paris. Didier was shocked to see that he could get right in close without any pixelation, that there is a tangible quality there just like with film. I finally in some ways got the same feelings I get with film.

There’s a real gradation between the shadows and the light, did you diffuse your lighting ?

DK : Most of the lighting in the film is indirect, on large panels outside of the houses. My gaffer is very fast when it comes to installing that sort of set-up ; anywhere there was a window, he installed big 6 by 6 or 4 by 4 frames with a natural cotton that reflects a warmer light than bleached cotton. These panels were installed at a distance and we opened them up to a greater or lesser degree in order to film the exteriors.
I really enjoyed having the light come in through the windows and filming the exterior at the same time. I hit that cloth with HMIs with a gelatin that I always use, some 159 (No Straw Color), a light straw yellow. I always place some at every light source in natural light, not only on the HMIs. When I don’t have any 159, my eye finds the light too blue-magenta,. That isn’t like natural light to me, which I see with the slightest bit of green. I’ve always wondered if other operators do that…
For the interiors, I lit them with photo lamps made by Octaplus. These lamps are fitted with tungsten, or “bug-lites,” they are on dimmers with double screens. It’s a very beautiful light, very natural, and it can be obtained quite quickly. Conceptually, maybe it’s kind of similar to the Lowel Softlights that Nestor Almendros used to use. We also worked quite a bit with LEDs in different combinations, and built some new light banks, like Bay Lights only lighter and easier to handle with the LEDs.

How did you manage the difference in contrast between the interiors and the exteriors ?

DK : I always left at least a ½ stop of overexposure with the exteriors, and I like fairly dim interiors, they seem more natural to me. So I exposed at two stops under for the interiors. I do everything by eye these days, I don’t use a light meter except at the end for a measurement or two. I like to end up a bit underexposed, to be honest, for me that is what seems “normal” whereas others sometimes say that it’s under key lighting. When you’re shooting digital, often the DIT doesn’t want to do that, underexpose. So I tell him that with the 14 stops of leeway these cameras boast, we can surely underexpose by two stops, can’t we ?

Anything to say about the postproduction ?

DK : It was the developing laboratory that Technicolor used in New York who developed the negatives, it was probably their last film because they’ve closed down now. They were established by the Technicolor and Deluxe groups, and developed film exclusively for those two laboratories.
Now all that is left is Photokem, in Los Angeles, as far as film developers in the US go. I’m going to be filming in Ireland this summer with James Gray and I’ve learned that there isn’t a single lab left in England ! This sudden near-disappearance of film and its processing is absurd. We have abandoned this medium much too quickly in favor of digital, which is far too young and doesn’t comletely satisfy me. It was Pascal Dangin, a Frenchman who owns a company in New York, The Box, a true artist when it comes to color, who graded the film. Pascal works with me on most of my feature films. He scanned the film in 6k and we did a post in 4K. On Magic in the Moonlight, I didn’t manage to do postproduction in 4K and I was disappointed by that ; it’s really prettier in 4K.
I would also like to thank the team that I put together especially for this film. It doesn’t always have the same makeup, I like the technicians to suit the project and for them to be highly motivated.

(Interview by Brigitte Barbier for the AFC, translated from French by Chris Clarke)